Scrabble Rouser

Math whiz and former chess Master David Koenig laughs at his rep as “the most despised person in Scrabble.” But he’s dead serious about being the best in the game.

“I’ve seen what most of the top-level players can do,” he says matter-of-factly, “and I think I can be the best player in the world.”

Koenig’s arrogance, a character flaw to which he freely admits, has alienated some of his peers. He’s even been described as “the most despised person in Scrabble.”

At first glance, though, Koenig doesn’t seem particularly menacing. He’s 30, thin, and baby-faced. He grew his brown goatee in order to make himself look a little older after he became a math teacher at Dwight-Englewood High School (his alma mater) in 2001 and was at first mistaken for a student. During tournaments, he rocks back and forth as he considers his next move, hugging a clipboard of score sheets. He looks stressed. Heavy sighs escape him.

Koenig is actually a relative newcomer to Scrabble. His restless and relentlessly analytical mind had previously seized upon chess. He took up the game of kings at age ten, eventually winning two New Jersey State Junior Championships and, at age 21, achieving FIDE Master status. Fewer than 6,000 of the 164,000 competitive chess players in the world reach that level. But in 2002, after reading Word Freak, Stefan Fatsis’ hugely influential 2001 best seller about competitive Scrabble, he switched.

“I said to myself, There’s no reason I can’t do this. I can be as good as the best guys in Scrabble.” His decision was influenced partly by the recognition that “I just don’t have the talent” to become a Grand Master. (There are currently 1,414 in the world.) But the element of chance in Scrabble appealed to him. “Scrabble is a great metaphor for life in that you’re going to be dealt very different things in different games,” he says. “But playing the best isn’t about getting the best or worst tiles. It’s about making the best of whatever you’re dealt.”

Scott Appel has watched Koenig grow into the player he is today. Appel was New Jersey’s number one Scrabble player before Koenig came along, and the two traded the top ranking during 2007 until last fall, when Augustine Adda, 30, of Belleville, took over the top spot. (Ratings are volatile because they are recalculated after every tournament.)

“When David came up,” Appel recalls, “he talked a bigger game than he had. It’s rare to see people talk s— as quickly as he did.” Another elite player on whom Koenig drew a bead was Marlon Hill, who placed second at the 1996 U.S. Scrabble Open and was featured prominently in both Fatsis’ book and in the 2004 Scrabble documentary, Word Wars. In a May 2007 posting on, a site open only to rated players, Koenig taunted Hill about an upcoming tournament in Hill’s hometown of Baltimore: “I’m looking forward to kicking Marlon’s ass, and everyone else’s.” Hill did not play that tournament, but Koenig has won both times the two have faced each other since.

Koenig threw himself into Scrabble, quickly learning his twos and threes (two- and three-letter words) and high-probability bingos. (A bingo, worth a bonus 50 points over the word score, occurs when a player uses all seven letters in his rack.) He began trekking across the Hudson every Thursday to play at the Manhattan Scrabble Club, arriving early to study his word lists over a cheddar burger (relish, pickle, no fries) and a large water at Burger Heaven. He later began using computer programs like Zyzzyva, studying 500 to 1,000 words a day.

There are 178,691 words in Scrabble’s Official Tournament and Club Word List. Koenig won’t reveal how many he knows—he’d rather keep opponents guessing.

There is an art to choosing which words to study. “It’s a balancing act between breadth and depth,” he says. A word such as coccyges (plural of coccyx) “isn’t worth learning” because the probability of being able to play it is too slim.

One of the first things a serious Scrabble competitor learns is how many tiles of each letter are in the set. (They range from twelve E’s to one each of J, K, Q, X, and Z.) Playing coccyges would require having both of the C’s in the bag plus one of the two blank tiles.

Daily study for two or more hours is considered minimum for top-level players. Joel R. Sherman, another of the warriors profiled in Word Freak and Word Wars, sees word study as mental replenishment. “It’s like pouring water into a bucket that has a hole in the bottom of it,” he says. “You need to keep filling it.”

It might seem to disparage Scrabble that most top players don’t bother learning the meanings of the more esoteric words. The fact is, it isn’t necessary. (In a recent tournament in Atlantic City, Koenig played qaid, vertu, and genii, which he could define, and souari and oolites, which he couldn’t.) Scrabble as recreation is a vocabulary game; but at the tournament level it is a pressure-packed game of probability, letter permutations, and exploitation of patterns on the board. Christine Economos, a member of the Manhattan Scrabble Club and a serious player for ten years, says of her fellow competitors, “You can’t drive with them. They start anagramming the signs.”

Growing up in Cresskill, the oldest of four children, Koenig was “a bit of a brainiac,” he says. Always a math whiz, he preferred mental games to physical ones. In fact, during his brief middle-school wrestling career in the 85-pound weight class, “not only did I lose every match that season, I was pinned every match.” Koenig’s mother, Julie Terrace, recalls, “If he didn’t have the physical skills, he used his mental skills to challenge people.” Koenig began playing video and computer games at a young age, competing against and often besting older kids. “I think he really enjoyed that,” Terrace says.

Terrace raised Koenig and his three sisters on her own after their father, Eugene, left home when Koenig was ten. “It was a touchy and tough financial and family situation,” Koenig says, “but my mom kept the family together.” Terrace later completed her nursing degree and went to work fulltime. Contact between father and son was sporadic at best after Eugene left. Koenig was a freshman at Columbia University and had not seen his father in several years when Eugene died at age 52—most likely from substance-abuse problems, Koenig says.

When Koenig was in fourth grade, he found a chess book at his grandparents’ house and became absorbed in it. A couple of summers later, his counselor at a camp for gifted students in Blairstown encouraged his mom to take him to chess clubs. By the beginning of sixth grade, Koenig was a regular at Dumont Chessmates. He played his first match at ten. “His opponent must have been the oldest man in the club,” recalls Terrace. “David might have been a bit scared. But he played.” She doesn’t remember whether he won or lost, but observes, “That was his attitude as a kid. He would do anything he wanted to do and accept any challenge.”

Koenig ranked in the top ten nationally throughout middle school. His chess tapered off in college as he devoted more time to a demanding double major in math and classics, but by his 1999 graduation from Columbia, he was playing regularly again.

Math, language, chess, and Scrabble “are all about structure,” Koenig says. He thrives on structure. “I don’t do good in unstructured environments, and I’m not good at creating it for myself,” he says. “Some people may see creativity and structure at odds with each other. But I don’t.”

Koenig played his first Scrabble tournament in 2002. Two years later, he was seeded 40th out of 40 players at a Boston tournament—and finished 4th. The strong showing boosted his rating 200 points, to 1,832. “I had a lot of luck,” he concedes. “After that tournament, I could say I was overrated. But I wanted to prove I was worthy of that rating.” Later that year, before a tournament in Albany, Koenig learned all the most probable bingos, sorting through seven- and eight-letter words a thousand at a time. “Since then I’ve had a lot of confidence that I can compete at that level,” he says. His rating peaked at 1,905 last September. At press time, it was 1,751.

There’s little money in Scrabble. From his earnings as a math teacher, Koenig pays his way to tournaments. His biggest prize: $550 for a win at Princeton in March 2007. The biggest purse in the game is $25,000 to the winner of the U.S. Scrabble Open, the national championship, which will be held in Orlando July 25-29. Koenig will compete in it for the second time.

There is little fame in Scrabble, either, despite the popularity of Word Freak and the DVD availability of Word Wars. (The U.S. Scrabble Open winner does appear on NBC’s Today.) ESPN began broadcasting the U.S. Scrabble Open in 2004 before switching to the U.S. School Scrabble Open a couple years later.
Beyond teaching and Scrabble, Koenig devotes most of his time to his five-year-old son, Simon. “He’s an awesome kid,” Koenig says. He and Simon’s mother, Adela Roxas, met while Koenig was teaching a Kaplan GRE prep course in New York during the summer of 2000. A flirtatious e-mail from his student prompted Koenig to ask Adela out, and they were engaged the following spring. Now the two are divorcing. He won’t discuss the split but admits Scrabble became “a bone of contention between me and my wife at times.” In the ensuing tension, the game has come to matter even more. “It’s an escape from everything else,” he says. “When I’m at a Scrabble tournament, everything else just fades away.”

Now Koenig is trying to reform his image. “I certainly shot my mouth off,” on the message board,  he admits. How does he feel about being described as the most despised person in Scrabble? “That cracks me up. Maybe people are being disingenuous—nice to my face, but talking behind my back. I’m not going to let it keep me up at night.”

Then he softens, admitting that his people skills have not been the best. “It took me a long time to realize that I needed to learn a new way of interacting with people,” he says. “I felt the need to prove myself. I don’t feel that need anymore.” From now on, he’ll try to let his tiles do the talking.

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